Don Ney: “We’re trying to use some sense and some decency about how to spend this money."
It’s easy to see why the United Port District’s headquarters building is called The Rock. From the corner of Pacific Highway and Sassafras Street, it looms mutely, ominously. One might say it overlooks Lindbergh Field, but that would suggest plenty of windows, and The Rock only has a few, which rim the seventh floor—the top floor—leaving the major portion of the building blank-faced and barren.
Ney:: “Fishermen are notorious for wanting things for nothing.”
One would have to say The Rock presides over the airport, as it does over the bayfront behind it, which curls like a boomerang toward the west and toward the south. The Rock’s lifeless beige facade is at least matched by the quiet, cold pall of the building’s interior, with its spotless and shiny white floors coursing vein-like through the echoing hallways. One sees no bustling bureaucrats nor hears any jangling telephones. Lean, spare efficiency is the only apparent attitude The Rock is equipped to accommodate. And it’s an attitude the man at the top of this building, Port Director Don Nay, demands and thrives in.
County Supervisor Roger Hedgecock: “It’s essentially an autocratic organization run by the staff.”
Indeed, it’s an attitude Nay even personally resembles. Like the building from which he oversees sixteen and a half linear miles of state tidelands which fringe San Diego Bay, Don Nay is tall, strong, cool, and calculating. Every morning at 8:15 he enters the building through speckless glass doors, wearing a solemn black suit and clutching a briefcase. Nay’s resemblance to the building is palpable. His face is as pale as the walls, and it is truly a stone face. His body is big and meaty, about six feet four inches, and his gait, resolute and sure. He’s the kind of man with the kind of face that seems to have skipped childhood altogether. He is forty-eight years old, and though he rarely smiles, he has abundant reason to. Nay is the head of the port, a job that pays him $53,000 a year and leads some to call him the most influential individual, after Mayor Pete Wilson, in affecting the way San Diegans work and play.
From his seventh-floor vantage point, Don Nay can look down and, if he had the inclination (which he doesn’t), marvel at the sheer dimension of his domain and its power. Many of San Diego’s biggest and most prosperous companies lease their ground from Don Nay’s port. Solar, Rohr, National Steel and Shipbuilding, Van Camp Tuna, the Sheraton hotels, and many others are planted along the bay like hot properties on a huge Monopoly board. Thousands of people work on or near the waterfronts of the five member cities of the Unified Port District—San Diego, National City, Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, and Coronado. Thousands shuttle through the airport, which is under the purview of the port. Other thousands play near the waterfront or on the bay itself, and along with those who work there, they are directly affected by the decisions of the Port District’s seven commissioners. But all these people are more particularly affected by the vision Don Nay has of the port, for there are many who believe he is the man who makes all the major decisions regarding his harbor, or more accurately,
He’s been in San Diego since 1960. when, as a young lawyer just graduated from Hastings, in San Francisco, he went to work for the city attorney and eventually got the port as one of his clients. Before coming here Nay had also gotten a master’s degree in business from San Francisco State, specializing in world trade. Before that he served in the Navy, and before that he worked for Pacific Far East Lines, a steamship company. He had graduated from the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo in 1950. In 1966, at the age of thirty-six, Nay became the port director, only the third since 1911. It seems Don Nay’s destiny was to run this port, and he does so vigorously. “Nay knows every foot of the port, where it came from and where it’s going,” says a former San Diego city official who had occasion to work with Nay many times over the years. “You can’t argue about the port with Don Nay. He knows more than you.”
Talking with Nay about the port is like talking to Neil Armstrong about the moon. You know it’s there, maybe even how it got there and what it’s made of. but what you don’t have (and what he does have) is the dust of the moon, or the mud of the port, in your gut, where the minutiae settles and is slowly digested. As Nay sits in his huge office, windows running along two whole sides of it, a floor-to-ceiling world map behind his desk, and a plush beige carpet absorbing and softening his words, one is struck most by the quickness and efficiency of his mind. Dates, names, and details are immediately on his tongue; he seems never to struggle with memories.
The port currently is in the black to the tune of about $24 million, and Nay doesn’t speak lightly of the responsibility of the port in spending this money. “We need a way to spend this state money that’s going to be to the benefit of the San Diego resident,” he says calmly, bringing the tips of his fingers together. The middle and fourth fingers of his left hand have rounded tips and no nails, the result of getting them chopped off in a mattress factory when he was fifteen. “We’re trying to use some sense and some decency about how to spend this money. We don’t think we’re running off building a bunch of junk. People would like us to spend money in their particular area. . . . If a guy wants to be a customs house broker, he wants the money spent there. If he’s a guy who wants to go on a picnic, he wants the money spent on parks. Coronado would like us to spend the money over there. It’s a tug of war. and our board tries to be judicious about apportioning where the money is spent this year.”
Though Nay is always careful to mention the board of port commissioners when he refers to decisions the port makes, there are those who feel the commissioners play merely a secondary role to their director. There are seven commissioners, one each from National City, Chula Vista, imperial Beach, and Coronado, and the other three are from San Diego. They are all appointed by their respective city councils and none of them receives a salary. “Don Nay plays the commissioners like a maestro,” says one former port commissioner. “The board is carrying out Nay’s policies, by and large. The commissioners don’t get together that often. [They meet once a week, on Tuesday.] But Don knows who the strong ones are, who’ll carry something, who’s a sheep. And it’s not difficult to be a sheep. He knows he can overwhelm the majority of them. The board has always been made up of weak people. It’s the nature of the appointment. It’s a lot of prestige and fringe benefits. You get to go on a lot of trips.”
This image of the board is entrenched in the minds of many people, including some local politicians. “It’s essentially an autocratic organization run by the staff,” says County Supervisor Roger Hedgecock, who has opposed Nay on a number of issues. “The decisions are made behind closed doors, but that's the way it was set up. ” Assemblyman Larry Kapiloff has a similar view. “Business has operated the port from the start,” he claims. “I’m feeling better now since Cohen, Leyton, and Smith got on the board. [Bernice Leyton and Alpis Smith are from San Diego; Ben Cohen represents Coronado.] For the first time, these commissioners are actually listening to people. But the board in the past has been made up of weak people. That’s the whole idea.” Kapiloff introduced a bill earlier this year which would have put a regional commission over the port district, made up of representatives from all the cities in the region, not just those along the port. (Kapiloff later withdrew his bill after considerable opposition developed and is reworking it for introduction into the State Assembly next year.)
Commissioner Bernice Leyton disagrees with the assessment that the board is dominated by Don Nay. “Most of the important issues are still open," she declares. But the commissioner does go on to say that Nay is in a powerful and advantageous position with respect to the other commissioners. He works in the port full time. “With any governmental body, the staff has most of the cards,” she explains. “It’s a question of whether the cards are being used positively or negatively.”
Of course, the answer to that question depends on whom you ask, and Don Nay is right when he says everyone wants the port to do more in their particular area. Though no one would argue that the port has not become a more beautiful and prosperous place since Nay became port director, there are plenty who take issue with the emphasis of the port’s efforts. And the manner in which the port deals with these critics is legendary, at least among the critics.
That treatment, which is harsh and not particularly embracing of open debate, seems to emanate from the inability of Don Nay to accept criticism. You can sense this from the look in his cold, frost-blue eyes. One can also sense it as a natural result of the way the port district is set up. Technically, it has no electorate it has to answer to. The cities appoint the commissioners, and the commissioners appoint the port director. When then-State Assemblyman Jim Mills helped organize the port district in 1963, he deliberately set it off by itself, autonomous, so as not to be unduly influenced by local special-interest groups. It has no history of and no mandate for having to respond to public sentiment, and this insulation and aloofness is personified in Don Nay. “He’s a tough, cold, blue-eyed son of a gun," says a friend of Nay’s who asked not to be identified. “He’s totally spoiled. Nobody’s been able to get at him for fifteen years, and they better not start now. He can’t take criticism—that’s one of the reasons why he’s so cold. He always feels he’s in a strong position of rightness.”
Nay’s reaction to critics is perhaps best illustrated by an incident which allegedly took place inside The Rock. Nay denies the incident ever happened and threatens to sue Pat Rickon for telling the story. Rickon, a Loma Portal resident, eventually joined with more than 1,000 other people in filing a suit against the port for damages from airplane noise at Lindbergh Field. According to Rickon, Don Nay walked up and grabbed her purse from her in an effort to take back a map she had gotten from the port. The map detailed airspace and noise patterns for Lindbergh Field, and Rickon—who was then active in CRASH, a now-defunct group dedicated to moving Lindbergh Field—wanted to use the map to make a presentation to the city council on a matter which had nothing to do with moving the airport. Rickon recalls that she had asked Commissioner Alois Smith if it was all right to get a map she needed from the port, and Smith consented, so she went to the map room in the port building. The man in the map room said he had the map she needed and he could change the scale for her and put it on thinner paper. As he went upstairs to do that. Rickon walked out to wait by the elevators because she was in a hurry. She says Nay was on a break from the commissioners’ meeting, and when he saw her, he went into the office she had just come out of. He came back out and was standing in the hallway speaking with some people and looking at Rickon. “They were calling him back into the meeting room but he wouldn't go,” says Rickon. “They called at least three times." Then the man came back down with the map and handed it to her. According to Pat Rickon, Nay then came over, took all the materials in her arms, including her purse, and started to walk down the hall. “I was absolutely dumbfounded!” recalls Rickon. “I couldn’t believe anyone would do such a thing. My knees were knocking, but I followed and said. ‘My purse!’ He opened it, looked inside, took out the maps [which she had gotten from the city, the county, and now the port], and gave it back to me. It was a big basket-type purse, so he may not have realized it was a purse, but after he handed it to me he went into this room. I knocked on the door and said. 'Those are my things,’ and walked in. He said, ‘You can’t just walk in here and take anything you want.’ I told him the whole story about why I wanted the map, and that Commissioner Smith said it was okay, and Nay said, ‘Commissioner Smith, he’s nothing.’ And he sneered when he said it. I was appalled. I said, ‘Mr. Nay, there is a Freedom of Information Act. This is a public entity. We are permitted to have information.’ He said, ‘You are the enemy. You have filed a claim against the United Port District.’ There were more than a thousand people who filed claims about the noise. It wasn’t a formal suit, it was just to get a dialogue going.”
Rickon says that as a result of this incident she became one of the thousand people who went on to file a formal lawsuit against the port because of the noise. (About 300 people have since withdrawn from the suit.) Nay's story goes like this: “She must be mistaking me for someone else."
Stories similar to Rickon's are plentiful if one talks to critics of the port. Members of the Longshoremen's Union, Local 29, tell of someone from the port calling their business manager a couple years ago after he was quoted in the papers criticizing the port's meager cargo trade. The caller allegedly reminded the business manager that the local was a tenant of the port and was getting a sizeable break on the rent.
Though Vic Bernadino, the manager of Star Kist Tuna on Shelter Island, won't say anything about the port, people close to him say he got a call from the port after he attended a Coastal Commission meeting which dealt in part with the port's planned removal of Star Kist from Shelter Island. He did not testify at the meeting, he only observed, and the caller allegedly questioned him about his presence there. In answer to a question about the incident, Bernadino replied, “No comment. I’m not gonna go against Don Nay. I’m just not gonna say anything."
There are other stories like these, but Don Nay’s short fuse comes forth in his retort to a question about the complaints of the small-boat fishermen who are docked at the San Diego commercial marina, near the Anti-Submarine Warfare School on Harbor Drive. "You talking about legitimate fishermen or these guys down here at the commercial marina?" Nay replied. Then he quickly allowed that there are a lot of legitimate fishermen at the marina.
These fishermen, most of them independents who hunt for albacore, have been complaining for years about the conditions at the marina, and they claim that as a result of the port's neglect in pressuring the leaseholder to make improvements, many of their colleagues have left to make other ports their home. The issue the fishermen are angered over is the way the docks have deteriorated since the current leaseholder for the marina. Robert Insinger, took over the operation in the mid-Sixties. Right now there is a struggle between Insinger and the city, which inspected the electrical system at the marina and found it in violation of the city’s electrical codes. Insinger says it meets the port ’s requirements and that’s enough. The city says it isn’t enough, and that Insinger must upgrade it. The fishermen say that the electrical system is entirely inadequate, and that because seventy-six of them signed a petition last March decrying the condition of the electrical system and pointing out other deficiencies. Insinger has evicted some of them. And they further complain that once they leave or are thrown out of the San Diego commercial marina, there is no other place in the port for them to go. “They’re allowing a situation to exist at the marina that is opposed to the interest of the commercial fisherman,” says Mike Tyler, a local fisherman and respected leader in the fishing community who received an eviction notice from Insinger. “They’re taking facilities away,” Tyler continues. “The number of berths for fish boats has been declining over the years, while the berths for other kinds of boats have been increasing.” At the San Diego commercial marina, the taking of two piers in 1968 by the port for the purpose of making sportfishing docks has long been a sore point. Tyler says ninety slips were taken from the commercial fishermen in that move. “The small-boat fisherman is stereotyped in the port commissioners’ minds as having dirty, junky boats and running on shoestring operations,” declares Tyler.
Port Director Don Nay is at odds with the fishermen on several counts. In reply to a statement that the piers at the commercial marina have been deteriorating since Insinger got the lease. Nay says, “I think that’s a falsehood. From the mid-Fifties to the mid-Sixties, the port operated those facilities and they were crummy then. Insinger came, said, I’ll take over, make repairs, and put it back in shape.’ He’s upgraded it.” The fishermen remember it pretty much in reverse. They say when Insinger got the lease the piers were in good shape. “Fishermen are notorious for wanting things for nothing,” continues Nay. “I don’t want to sound like I'm championing Insinger. I don't think the marina was ever in very good shape” About a week after Nay made these statements, the port commissioners unanimously voted to have the port attorney scrutinize Insinger’s lease for possible violations.
On the subject of berthing. Nay is equally at odds with the claims of Mike Tyler. “There’s more fish-boat berthing available today than there ever has been in the history of the port. I think some of them are crybabies.” Nay points with pride to the $1.5 million G Street pier, where about thirty berths for fishermen were created a few months ago. Nay points to the large tuna clippers, which the port obviously likes to display. In 1975, he says, the port spent $3 million to upgrade the seawall at the Embarcadero so the seiners could continue to tie up there. That segment of the fishing industry generally has no quarrel with Nay.
Another area which Don Nay is proud of, but which has been the target of critics for a number of years, is the shipping industry in San Diego. “The flak he [Nay] gets is from people who are uninformed," says David Porter, a local custom house broker and foreign freight forwarder. “At cocktail parties, these retired Navy captains have always got him in the corner, saying, ‘How come we don't have ships in here? What you oughta do. . . .' “ Porter mentions the container crane which was installed at the 24th Street terminal in 1973 and has been used only about half a dozen times since then. “Nay knew it wouldn't work,” recalls Porter, “but people badgered him into putting it there." Nay actually opposed the crane, but the commission felt there was a need. The fact is, and Nay realized it then, says Porter, that San Diego's future is as a bulk cargo (loose, raw materials) port, not a container cargo port. Right now there is only one ship that is regularly scheduled in and out of San Diego that handles cargo other than grain, potash, or soda ash. This freighter, the Camellia Ventura, comes around about every thirty-six days to pick up empty tuna cans manufactured in Kearny Mesa for the trip to Pago Pago, American Samoa, and drops off filled tuna cans from the canneries there. Most of the other shipping trade in San Diego is bulk cargo. "We don't have any industry here in San Diego that relies on water transportation,” explains Nay. “If Mount Helix was a mountain of chrome ore, we'd have a lot more ships in this port. But when you're producing Salk vaccine, and I'm glad we are, believe me. I'm not saying it’s bad. I’m just saying we don’t have a basic industry of iron smelting, copper smelting, or bauxite, or coffee roasting, or sawmills. We have high technology manufacturing here which goes by air freight or goes by truck. It doesn’t go by ships. A lot of people rejoice about that. We don’t think it’s a bad thing.”
The port has a marketing department with a $400,000 budget that tries to scare up shipping business from all over the world for San Diego, and in the last two years, bulk exports have increased markedly. Two million tons of bulk cargo were shipped out of here last year. "Nay even tried to get frozen meat from Australia," says Porter, “but it hasn’t worked out yet. He’s put on a long, sustained campaign for business, with one guy traveling the world looking for cargo. It’s a problem of the hinterlands. You can’t get out from here by rail unless you go north first. And it’s been that way since the World Exposition of 1915."
But even without a lot of shipping, the port has managed to get itself off the tax rolls and into fabulous financial health. “The key to it." explains Nay, “is to put some cash registers around among the shrubbery. The port tries to leverage its development by getting private people to put their money in the ground. It increases your ability to develop because you're not using public money. It ensures somebody is going to be serious. When they create the tax base, we don't get the money, but the city and county does.
“Complaints come from people who make the decision in their life (for instance). that ‘I'm gonna be a customs house broker.’ " Nay continues. “Then no matter what the port does to increase cargo, you're not gonna do enough, because he's basically a paper shuffler making money out of shuffling papers. He can turn in his telephone and cash in his leased desk and move to Portland tomorrow. But the guy that puts the money in the shipyard or the cannery or the shopping village or the restaurant or the aircraft plant or the boat repair yard, he’s got his money in the ground. He’s creating the tax base, he's gonna do a good job." That’s why Nay is for putting a boat repair yard on the one small piece of bayside land in Logan Heights—next to the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal—which hasn't been developed yet. That's the place where some of the Mexican-Americans in the community want to have a park and access to the waterfront.
"We feel our job is to provide for things on the waterfront that really need to be on the waterfront. The Chicanos have made the argument, 'Well, we want a waterfront park,’ " argues Nay. "Well, the people of Del Cerro or Allied Gardens or East San Diego don't have a waterfront park either. But they all have the opportunity, and this includes those in the Barrio Logan, to go to Mission Bay, Spanish Landing, Coronado, or eventually to the park we’re building at Brennan’s Island. I don’t know that just because you call yourself Barrio Logan you have a right to a park next door. I don’t say that’s the only point of view that can be logically entertained, but that’s our position.”
Larry Kapiloff is one of those who logically entertains another point of view. He feels we may be putting too many cash registers among the shrubbery. "We’re creating places where people make money,” asserts Kapiloff. “That’s what I object to.” The assemblyman also believes the port spends too much money catering to tourists. “We're competing for our beaches and resources with the tourists," he says, referring to the large number of hotels on the waterfront, those planned for Navy Field, and the ongoing construction of Seaport Village on Harbor Drive behind the police station. “What is on Shelter or Harbor Island for the year-round person?” Kapiloff asks. He also wonders why the port should be running the airport. “It’s a regional airport operated by the port cities,” he says. “But the airport has nothing to do with the port of San Diego.” Except that it lies on state tidelands.
Perhaps no other issue has brought the port district more criticism than the airport, and the removal thereof. The airport relocation groups come and go, the lawsuits simmer, and now there is a death toll to add to the clamor. According to a recent survey by Oscar Kaplan, fifty percent of the San Diegans polled now favor a location other than Lindbergh Field for the airport. This survey was commissioned by Channel 39 early in the fall, and opponents of the airport refer to that station's misrepresentation of the results as just another example of Don Nay’s network of support which springs into action when his domain is threatened. Last October 23, when Channel 39 news aired the findings of the survey, the script read, “For one reason or another, most people in San Diego seem to prefer Lindbergh Field as the site for the major metropolitan airport . . . Five hundred people were asked for their opinion.. . . most favor Lindbergh . . . thirty-nine percent” (ellipses theirs). What the reporter did not say was that fifty percent of those questioned favored either Brown Field, Miramar, or North Island for their airport.
The controversy continues, and sitting above it all, watching the newest terminal progress toward completion sometime this spring, is Don Nay. From his windows atop The Rock, Nay sees the big airliners land and take off, but almost no noise leaks into the air-conditioned silence of his office. The opponents of the airport argue that the port district would be operating in the red if it lost the airport, but Nay scoffs at this. He does allow, however, that the airport accounts for slightly more than forty percent of the port district's revenues.
Nay speaks of the airport, and of those who want it moved, in tones that approach condescension. “We have real sympathy for some of those people,” he says, referring to the ones who have brought suit against the port for approximately $70 million. “It's noisy over there. Some of them are the opportunists, then there's the group that's lived there a long time, and the middle group, the ones who want the airport moved. The people are frustrated. They’re looking for somebody to put the finger on. The FAA is just like a bowl of quicksilver, so they put their finger on us.”
Nay says the port's position is that it is not the airport that is making the noise, it's the airplanes. And the port has no authority over noise standards for aircraft. “We're trying to pressure Congress into adopting stricter noise rules,” Nay says. “I'm not trying to tell the congressmen how to do their thing, but selfishly, we would like to see the federal government say, ‘Goddammit. if you're gonna fly those aircraft, you’re gonna have to make them quieter.’” Nay is quite sure the airport will not be moved for the next ten to fifteen years. He looked up the total bonded indebtedness of San Diego County and found it was around $550 million. He figures one billion dollars to move the airport “is not a crazy figure.” Nay believes the important question now is, “will the technology become available to quiet the aircraft fast enough to compensate for the increased absolute amount of noise because more planes are coming?”
Nay is turning away airlines these days. “If the carriers want to get in here, we're telling them, ‘Why don't you go down to Brown Field?’ I’ve heard a lot of reports from CPO that Brown Field’s a great place. ” Nay was asked if Brown Field was really feasible now. “Why not? There’s no instrument landing system there, and the tower closes at ten o’clock, but those things can be changed. And there's a little collision hazard with Tijuana I think, but that's something you can watch for. I think it’d be real interesting if the city council starts yapping about the port not doing the right things to get these airlines in here, and we tell the airlines. ‘Why don't you go down to the city’s airport and see how they like it?’ They like to throw rocks at us but. ...”
Nay is getting a lot of rocks thrown at him now, but like his building, he is impervious to them. He knows where he wants the port to go and he’s taking it there. He predicts more marinas, more hotels and restaurants, and more industry. These things are in the planning stage now. He says there will probably be a parking garage erected along Harbor Drive between the county building and the Navy buildings on the comer of Broadway. An 1100-room hotel complex is slated for Navy Field, and Harbor Drive will eventually give up its starkness along the Embar-cadero to hundreds of trees. But he acknowledges development is slow and arduous now. “You can’t just rely on engineering and economics like you could at one time. Now you have to rely on the environmental aspects of it. I don’t say that's all bad. Unfortunately, the environmental laws have politicized every decision.” It’s primarily the environmental constraints that the port finds itself waiting on most often now. The money is at hand, and so is the expertise, but with the long delays in getting a project underway, it’s a good thing most of the expertise is not on the port district’s payrolls.
The port seems to be structured perfectly for today’s political climate of financial austerity. In spite of the many large projects it undertakes, it only employs 275 people. “We don’t load up our staff with a whole bunch of engineers and people that we can hire,” beams Nay. “There’s no sense for us to have a staff of architects. ” So the port is not encumbered with one of the biggest problems of a typical American bureaucracy—having to pay for a huge staff which in slow times does very little work.
The port started hiring contractors to do most of its work years ago, and it’s a system that other bodies, such as the city of San Diego, are beginning to embrace. “You know, there’s nothing less inspired than a civil service janitor,” Nay deadpans. “So in the airport we have a contract. Now, it’s expensive; it costs us roughly half a million a year to have the janitor work done at the airport. But we think private enterprise is better equipped to do that kind of work, to hustle those guys around there (it’s a very transient group anyway). The contract docks the contractors’ pay if they don’t do the work that day.”
If you imagined yourself in Don Nay’s shoes, and you looked out his window at the jets floating silently by, and saw the ships steaming in and out, and the hotels and the restaurants and the parks and the businesses and all the rest he had a major role in bringing here, you’d probably feel a touch powerful—like the owner of all the property in a Monopoly game. When asked how he feels about it. Nay stays seated; he knows what’s outside those windows, and answers immediately. “If I began to emote . . he begins, then backs up and starts again. “I think it’s a beautiful place and I think it's a great medium to work in and I get a lot of psychic income out of seeing something happen that’s better than it was. But if I began to give any kind of signals out to the board that I felt I was at the top of the pyramid or they were there to rubber-stamp my ideas or that I had all this power. I’d be gone by next Monday, because they wouldn’t tolerate that.
“If you got your way every time you formulated an idea, you’d begin to feel infallible or something, and that would be the beginning of the end. The board doesn't accept everything I suggest. You have to take the ying with the yang sometimes.”